What if you could experience the deliciousness of a bottle of Coke without the accompanying 65 grams of sugar?
That is the premise behind “healthy Coke”, a beverage that’s making the rounds on social media after a TikTok user posted about it, attributing the recipe to her Pilates teacher. All you do, says Amanda Jones, is combine “a splash of balsamic vinegar” with sparkling water of any flavor. “I am not joking you: it tastes just like a Coke,” she says.
Others on TikTok and Twitter have followed Jones’s lead, and though there has been plenty of backlash – including from Hoda Kotb on NBC, who nearly retched in disgust – others have overcome their skepticism.
So is it any good? Could the mixed reviews be related to the rather vague recipe? And is it actually healthy? The Guardian conducted an investigation to find out.
The taste test
Jones said you could use “any sparkling beverage”, so I tried sparkling water in plain, lime, cherry and watermelon varieties. I also tried two quantities of balsamic vinegar – one part vinegar to four parts sparkling water, and one part vinegar to eight parts sparkling water. Finally, I sampled each version with and without ice. Here are the results:
Plain sparkling water
This was disgusting. Though it looked like Coke – and as we all know, presentation is an important part of the dining experience – it was basically vinegar soda.
Ice made it less bad, but nowhere approaching good. Despite the dilution, it had an unpleasant aftertaste without any real before-taste. I don’t recommend it.
Lime-flavored sparkling water
Of the four varieties, this was the one that tasted the most like Coke – especially with ice. It also smelled like Coke, which perhaps suggests that one of the secret “natural flavors” in Coke’s highly guarded recipe could be lime?
But this doesn’t mean I’d ever voluntarily drink it again. It was certainly tolerable for the purposes of an experiment, but the stronger version (icy or no) tasted like a lovely glass of Coke had been left out in the sun for weeks and started to ferment. With ice or without, the weaker version was not exactly bland, but full of competing flavors that canceled each other out, adding up to a big sip of nothingness.
Watermelon-flavored sparkling water
The stronger version of this was surprisingly good. It tasted like a tangy watermelon soda. But I dock it a few points because it had an aftertaste like I’d just drunk a salad. (Ice fixed that problem.)
The weaker version was less vinegary, which I appreciated, but it was also a little bland. Maybe one part vinegar to six parts watermelon sparkling water is the answer.
Cherry-flavored sparkling water
For me, this was the winner. It didn’t taste like Coke, but it was good. I have never quite understood the enthusiasm for La Croix and its cousins, which all taste to me like someone was trying to manufacture a soda but forgot to add the flavoring. Somehow, in the weaker version, the vinegar enhanced the cherry flavor enough to give it a sweet, robust taste that wasn’t too vinegary. The stronger version was a little too acidic for my liking, but with ice, it was fairly tasty.
I only had a few sips of each variety, so perhaps the equivalent of a glass and a half of the stuff, but I did not feel great afterwards and I assume it had something to do with an afternoon spent drinking diluted vinegar. That can’t be good for you – right?
I asked the question to Erin Morse, the chief clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA medical center.
She said drinking vinegar straight was a bad idea. “It is best to dilute 1–2 tablespoons in 6-8 ounces of fluid,” she wrote in an email to the Guardian, adding that it was important to clean your teeth after consuming the stuff, which “can contribute to dental erosion” .
However, as for the DIY drink itself, “it’s worth a try”, she wrote, noting that drinking soda was associated with poor health. Even drinking diet soda daily, she said, has been linked with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Vinegar, on the other hand, “has numerous health benefits”. Elements of the fermentation process can help cut blood glucose and triglyceride levels, she wrote.
“But remember,” she noted, “this ‘healthy coke’ will not be a cure-all.”
All this raises another question, one I’ve grappled with since childhood. Sprite and 7up taste lemony; cream soda tastes creamy; Fanta tastes like oranges. But what, exactly, is Coke supposed to taste like?
Maybe we finally have the answer: when John Pemberton served the first Coca-Cola in 1886, he was chasing a vision of sweetness infused with balsamic and lime.